The evolution of Assassin’s Creed 3’s naval battles: the simulation that almost was
Saying Assassin’s Creed 3 is a beautiful game is like rooting for the Yankees. Ubisoft has the kind of money, talent, and time many developers and publishers can only dream of, so of course the game looks good in demos. Having said all that…
I had the chance to see a hands-off demo of the game’s naval battles during PAX, and the ships, waves, and weather effects all worked together to create something that felt very different than the rest of the game. The naval battles didn’t just look good however, as the sense of drama as the great ships sailed past each other, attacking with different kinds of artillery and vying for placement, was impressive.
It turns out the team’s first pass at naval battles ended very differently, with slower pacing and a feel that was closer to a simulation. It ultimately didn’t fit in with what is essentially an action title, but the story behind the early attempts at naval combat is fascinating.
What almost was
“This is a pivotal moment of American History,” Steven Masters, the lead game designer, told me as he sailed his virtual ship through the Battle of Chesapeake Bay. The battle was technically a stalemate, but the tactical victory went to the French. “This is where things really shifted for the success of the revolution,” Masters said. “The revolution was basically won through the support of navies.”
The first year of Assassin’s Creed 3 was largely spent on research, and there’s a historian on staff to make sure everything is as close to historically accurate as possible. The team went to Singapore to tour ships, and record the sounds of cannon fire. Since naval battles of the time were ponderous, methodical affairs, I asked Mission Director Philippe Bergeron about the tension between creating an action game, and bringing in a game mode that could have been very slow-paced.
“That’s something we went back and forth on. We started out and were a little more simulation oriented,” Bergeron explained. “When we got the first build of it, it was stunning, it was a beautiful thing, but when we compared it to the rest of the game it didn’t play the same. It felt like a different game. So that’s when we decided to go on the other side of the scale and maybe arcade it up.” The original “draft” of the naval battles didn’t fit with the rest of the Assassin’s Creed games in either control or pacing, and they had to rethink what needed to be included for a fun experience.
So what was cut? “We had things like the depth of the water, which wasn’t necessarily clear, things like shoals and the really deep water,” Bergeron explained. “The visibility on where those things were was a little hard to pull off.”
Masters agreed that the simulation aspects had to be toned down for the final version. “The reality of these boats is that it would take around an hour to set the sails. So to simulate that is not fun. It’s not an action-oriented experience, it doesn’t have the speed and accessibility that Assassin’s Creed is known for,” he said. “We tried a variety of different tunings for how fast you could set your sails, what it was like to play with the wind, from ultra-realistic where you could capsize the boat and things like that if you were hitting the wrong tack.”
“A lot of those [details] were interesting, but they weren’t serving our game. We still have a rich tactical landscape, it’s fun to play, and there’s many options. You have to manage your sails, the wind, and the waves correctly, but we take much of the grunt work and the slowness out of the experience,” they explained.
So what’s left?
You still have to pay attention to the environment and your options while commanding your ship. With the wind at your back and sails set to full you can move quickly, but you won’t be able to turn as fast. You need to pay attention to the timing of the waves to make sure you’re not firing into water, and maintain visual line of sight to your target.
The final version of the naval battles are clearly part of an action game, and no one would ever confuse it with a “realistic” version of naval warfare, but you can still select different weapons for your cannon and aim your shots. If you take out the rear of the other ships you can disable their steering. By aiming at the center you try to take out their powder store for a one-shot kill. You can use the chain-shot, which is two cannon balls attached by a chain to rip through their sails and leave them dead in the water.
The water itself is an obstacle. “We use the Beaufort scale to define the intensity of the waves,” Masters told me. A level one would be glassy ocean, and a twelve would be sheer walls of water. I saw the game running at a three or four, and they can scale that dynamically to create battles of differing intensities. The waves themselves aren’t uniform, so you’ll deal with both short and tall waves. “You’ll want to be on top of the waves when you’re shooting, for maximum range,” he said. I’m almost reminded of a slightly slower-paced Wave Race, except with giant jet skis that you can board in order to massacre the other racers.
I didn’t get to put my hands on a controller to play the game directly, although I hope that’s coming soonish, but even just watching the combat is thrilling. The seas are being used as a dynamic, hostile environment during the naval battles and, even though the pace of the battles were sped up well past what is historically accurate, this type of combat is still very different than what we’re used to seeing in video games.
The final concepts behind the naval battles fit the look and feel of Assassin’s Creed 3, but a part of me would have loved to try the more simulation-focused version of the battles that was prototyped.